On a day when Fernando Alonso once again could not believe his good fortune in taking another victory for Renault, Lewis Hamilton left Japan wondering if the wheels were once again falling off his world title campaign at the eleventh hour.
The Englishman had spoken of how his increased maturity as a driver had reduced the pressure he felt going into the Japanese GP with a seven-point lead over arch-rival Felipe Massa of Ferrari. But a moment of impetuosity at the start of the race once again called into question his equanimity.
Hamilton was beaten away by Massa's team-mate Kimi Raikkonen. Though he did not have to beat the Finn, who was only an outsider to retain his crown, Hamilton then staged a very late-braking move going into the first corner, only to run wide across Raikkonen's bows as he discovered, as many of his fellows were about to, that lower than anticipated ambient temperature had reduced the level of grip. Race stewards were already considering whether a penalty was necessary as he slipped back to sixth place, and then he was attacked by Massa going into Turn 11 on the second lap. Hamilton had raced down the inside of Toyota's Jarno Trulli in Turn 10, also passing Massa in the process. But then the Brazilian hit his left rear wheel with his Ferrari's right front, spinning Hamilton down to almost last place. Hamilton pitted for fresh tyres having made flat-spots on his original set during his outbraking move, and McLaren brimmed him with fuel hoping to make up ground as they had after he brushed a wall early in the Monaco GP. There the ploy had worked, but this time he was given a penalty for causing Raikkonen to leave the track in Turn One, and his afternoon was ruined as he trailed home in 12th position.
The attempt to overtake Raikkonen suggested that he is feeling the pressure far more than he has let on in the climax to a world championship fight in which other errors, in Bahrain, Canada and France have offset brilliant drives in Monaco, Britain and Belgium.
"What can I say?" Hamilton said. "It was a bad day. Disappointingly, I didn't make a great start, but I slipstreamed Kimi and went up the inside. I braked a bit late for the first corner, but so did everybody. A lot of cars went wide, and I just went a bit wider than everyone else. Then on the second lap Felipe hit me off. I went on the inside of him and he broke left and hit me pretty hard. It was as deliberate as it could be."
Both men were given drive-through penalties by the stewards for their transgressions, and as Massa fought back to an eventual seventh place, Hamilton saw his advantage over him reduced. His performance raised questions over his ability to withstand pressure, and what made the opening lap move even harder to comprehend was that McLaren team principal Ron Dennis had spoken prior to the race of their strategy being to survive the opening laps by driving cautiously, prior to pushing harder as the race settled down.
At times like these Hamilton has displayed a tendency to leave the circuit early, and yesterday was no exception. Before he left he remained unrepentant and said: "Obviously, I'm not happy after a result like today's – but I'm already getting over it and tomorrow will be another day. There are positives to take from this; I've only lost two points to Felipe in the drivers' championship, so it's definitely not over. Now I'll forget today ever happened and move forward; we've got two more races to go and my target is still to win both of them. I'll move on to next week in China."
Both Alonso and Robert Kubica, who finished second for BMW Sauber after a gripping fight with Raikkonen, admitted to having adventures of their own in that first corner. The Pole led the Spaniard until the first pitstops, then their order was reversed. But Kubica's performance kept him in play as a title contender, albeit 12 points adrift, and removed Raikkonen from the equation as the Finn is now 21 points behind with 20 available should he win the Chinese and Brazilian races.
Whatever Renault have done – or been allowed to do – to their once hopeless R28 has turned it into a rocketship that is suddenly capable of running with the Ferraris, McLarens and BMW Saubers, and the Spaniard was delighted.
"I took the benefit of the excitement at the start," he said, "and put myself behind Robert, which made my race a bit easier. Then I asked the team to put less fuel in to get me ahead of him during the first pit stop and that worked. In that second stint I was in free air, the car was very nice to drive and I was pulling out a nice gap. Part of the victory was in that second stint, for sure, and after that I could control the race to the end."
It was the once mighty Renault team's first back-to-back success since 2006. "Obviously Singapore was very unexpected and there were some special conditions," Alonso added. "but today we had nothing like that and we won again on a circuit that is not particularly good for us. I can't believe it!"
The racing highlight was the battle between Kubica and Raikkonen, which reached its peak on lap 53 as they ran side-by-side until the Pole, who refused to be intimidated by the red car, forced the Finnish champion to abandon his challenge.
"It was a great battle with Kimi for three or four laps," Kubica said. "There is no space to go two cars through turn three and I was on the inside. I didn't back off and actually I nearly went off the track, but I knew I had to survive and I did, and once the tyres were cleaned up I was able to pull away. This is much better than the Canada win. We didn't improve a lot in the last three months, so to be able to beat Ferrari and McLaren – it's amazing!"
Engine failure: Hamilton in 2007
Winner Hamilton; Champ Leaders: 1 Hamilton (107pts) 2 Alonso (95) 3 Raikkonen (90)
The Briton extended his lead to 12 points. The retirement of team-mate Alonso allowed Hamilton to coast home.
Winner Raikkonen; Champ Leaders: 1 Hamilton
(107pts) 2 Alonso (103) 3 Raikkonen (100)
Hamilton's first retirement of the season allowed Alonso and Raikkonen to close the title gap. The Stevenage driver slid off the track on lap 31.
Winner Raikkonen; Champ Leaders 1 Raikkonen (110pts) 2 Hamilton (109) 3 Alonso (109)
Raikkonen took the title after engine problems relegated Hamilton to the back of the field.
Race details from Fuji and standings in the championship
1 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1 hr 30min 21.892 sec
2 R Kubica (Pol) BMW 1:30.27.175.
3 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:30.28.292
4 N Piquet (Bra) Renault 1:30.42.462.
5 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:30.45.659
6 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso 1:30.55.977
7 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:31.08.050
8 M Webber (Aut) Red Bull 1:31.12.703
9 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW 1:31.16.012; 10 S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso 1:31.20.977; 11 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams 1:31.23.988; 12 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:31.40.792; 13 R Barrichello (Br) Honda, 66 laps; 14 J Button (GB) Honda, 66; 15 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams, 66
Not Classified (did not finish): G Fisichella (It) Force-India 21 laps; H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren 16 laps; A Sutil (Ger) Force India 8 laps; T Glock (Ger) Toyota 6 laps; D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull 0 laps.
Fastest Lap: F Massa 1min 18.42, lap 55.
1 Hamilton 84 pts; 2 Massa 79; 3 Kubica 72; 4 Raikkonen 63; 5 Heidfeld 56; 6 Kovalainen 51; 7 Alonso 48; 8 Trulli, Vettel 30; 10 Webber 21; 11 Glock 20; 12 Piquet 18; 13 Rosberg 17; 14 Barrichello 11; 15 Nakajima 9; 16 Coulthard 8; 17 Bourdais 4; 18 Button 3.
1 Ferrari 142 pts; 2 McLaren 135 pts;
3 BMW 128; 4 Renault 66; 5 Toyota 50; 6 Toro Rosso 34; 7 Red Bull 29;
8 Williams 26; 9 Honda 14.